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Illustration by Liene Magdalena

John Sexton: Another Year, Another Octave

Stressing repeatedly the importance of mythos, Sexton discussed the values of human love and family through his experiences as well as the current challenges and future aspirations of NYUAD.

Nov 3, 2019

On Oct. 27, 150 students gathered around in Al Diwan to listen to John Sexton, the founding father of NYU Abu Dhabi. For many in the Class of 2023, this talk served as an introduction to Sexton, who was president of NYU from 2002 to 2015 and authored the book “Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age.
Dressed in a casual navy t-shirt, Sexton emerged on stage and engaged with students in what felt more like an easy-going conversation than a lecture. Stressing repeatedly the importance of mythos, Sexton discussed the values of human love and family through his experiences while also addressing the current challenges and future aspirations of NYUAD.
“On that Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007, I asked my wife if she wanted dinner,” Sexton started off, “‘Come back in half an hour,’ she said. ‘I have to finish a book that I want to discuss later.’ And when I came back, this perfectly healthy woman who was 10 years younger than me had died ... And our lives changed. Now, I want you to know the mythos of NYU because ever since, our family lives by some of the principles I will be sharing with you,”
He went on to offer his insights on life and love.
“Life is not about accumulating assets; it’s about accumulating memories and experiences,” Sexton said. “In other words, it’s about playing another octave of the piano. If you wanted one phrase that captures NYUAD, and summarizes in one phrase the global network university, it is to play another octave of the piano.”
It is playing these notes on another octave that establishes the incredibly rich diversity of the NYUAD community, Sexton explained. Sexton went on to emphasize the importance of the unique communities, cultures and experiences we develop throughout our college lives.
“Look around this room... we delight in differences ⁠— a great gift from creation that expands your mind. If there is a note you haven’t touched, a music you haven’t heard, a food you haven’t tasted, a place you can get to you haven’t been, a person unlike anyone you’ve ever met, reach out and play those notes,” he summarized, connecting his principles with those of the university, “This is precisely the spirit that captures NYUAD’s profound cosmopolitanism.”
Ribka Tewelde, Class of 2023, shared her thoughts after the talk.
“My perspective was pretty narrow about this school; I thought it was just created because there had to be a school in this region,” she admitted. “But Sexton widened my perspective in the realm that the school is just remarkable because it’s not only about the diverse nationalities and backgrounds, but something beyond that. It forces us to really connect with people that we would never ever talk to on our own.”
On a final note, Sexton emphasized how blessed we are with opportunities.
“One thing we know about all of you is that you’re sizzling smart,” he said to the laughter of everyone, “So far, although you’re like only 10 percent down the journey, you’ve done pretty well developing it. That’s why you’re here. But if you’re lucky enough to have this sizzling talent, you have the obligation to use it in some way that makes you a contributor to the common good.”
“I left with the impression that this school was built with the intention of having this liberal arts school in the Middle East. He has dreams like fixing the world for the better, and that’s what NYUAD [is] about. We have to give back what we’ve received; all the resources that we’ve been given aren’t just for us to create a beautiful résumé, but to really make an impact in the sector that we believe needs the most help,” added Tewelde.
Ultimately, Sexton left audience members with a final thought on the importance of treasuring opportunity: “There are too many people out there whom I’ve encountered in remote places who are just as smart as all of us and never get a chance … If you have the opportunity, don’t you waste it.”
Chris Shim is Deputy News Editor. Email him at
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